'Tombland' unearths plots and Tudor-era political intrigue

C. J. Sansom's historical mystery series features lawyer Matthew Shardlake – one of the best-drawn leading characters in the entire genre. 

Tombland By C. J. Sansom Little, Brown 880 pp.

Tombland, the seventh and longest of C. J. Sansom’s historical mysteries starring Tudor-era lawyer Matthew Shardlake (the series began with “Dissolution” in 2003), opens in the spring of 1549 when England is a very unsettled state. There are rumblings of insurrection in the north; the treasury is quickly emptying; a pack of power-hungry noblemen are vying for supremacy; and there’s a vacuum at the heart of all this chaos: No king sits on the throne. Edward VI, the heir of the late King Henry VIII, is only 11 years old. He’s governed by a council, and that council is headed by Edward Seymour, the stern and complicated Duke of Somerset, a man with ambitions of his own. 

Although the Seymours, Edward and his brother Thomas, were less mercurial than the old king, they could be every bit as deadly. Many an experienced statesman or courtier had gone to death or exile during Henry’s final years, and day-to-day survival in the country and at court was like navigating along the floor of a snake pit. 

By the time of "Tombland"’s events, Shardlake has proven himself an adept survivor. As the book opens, he is working as a lawyer for Henry’s daughter Elizabeth, perhaps a calm enough position, since everybody in the kingdom assumes that Edward VI will reach manhood and rule for years and that his half-sisters, Mary and Elizabeth, will grow up to make state marriages but never take the throne themselves. 

The book’s mystery kicks into motion when Edith Boleyn, a distant cousin of the executed Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth’s notorious mother, is murdered. Shardlake and his assistant, Nicholas Overton, investigate a possible connection to Elizabeth herself. But nothing is ever straightforward in a C. J. Sansom novel, and soon things are complicated not only by another murder but by Kett’s Rebellion, an uprising that eventually captured the key city of Norwich and threatened to turn the whole region against Edward Seymour’s government. In a move that veteran mystery readers will see coming but appreciate nonetheless, it becomes apparent to Shardlake that Edith Boleyn was connected with the rebellion… and that the connection might portend disaster for Shardlake’s client, Elizabeth. 

Longtime readers of this superb series will know what to expect on every level: sharply drawn characters, particularly Shardlake himself, who has grown into one of the most well-textured leading characters in the entire genre; fully realized historical settings, in this case not only the cut-and-thrust politics of the royal court but also the multifaceted nature of Kett’s Rebellion; and most of all the sense that these sumptuous books are more Tudor historical novels that happen to feature murder mysteries than they are murder mysteries that happen to take place in Tudor times. The book also furthers the long-running antagonism between Shardlake and his nemesis, Sir Richard Rich, a squirmy and vindictive toady so memorably characterized in Robert Bolt’s play “A Man for All Seasons.”

Kett’s Rebellion is an inspired choice on Sansom’s part for a real-world pivot on which to turn the major events of the novel, and readers will learn a great deal about the movement’s leaders, aims, and progression, not only from the novel itself but also from the author’s supplementary essay on the subject. But if “Tombland” has a flaw, it’s that by abandoning so conspicuously the brevity that is the hallmark of a tense tale of murder, it makes its own whodunit elements feel irrelevant. Considering how intensely satisfying every novel in this series is, it will feel like heresy to suggest this latest one might have benefitted from some editorial pruning, but I’m sure I won’t be the only reader thinking it. 

Behind the social upheaval and the twists and turns of a murder plot, “Tombland” asks a variation on the question that’s underscored so many Shardlake novels: Can a good man come through perilous times and still remain good? Our hero, doggedly dedicated to the truth and to nuance, has already outlasted Henry VIII, but as the Book of Ecclesiastes tells us, “Woe to you, O land, when your king is a child.” Readers know that in just four years, England will be facing the death of young King Edward and the kingdom-convulsing turmoil that follows. Will Matthew Shardlake survive? History provides no guarantees, but one thing is certain: C. J. Sansom fans will eagerly show up in order to find out. “Tombland” is the latest in what is easily one of the best ongoing mystery series currently being published.

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